No parent would knowingly give their baby food that could put their health at risk.
But, according to an alarming congressional report released in February, popular baby food companies Gerber, Beech-Nut Nutrition Company, Nurture, Inc., and Hain Celestial Group knowingly sold products containing significant amounts of toxic heavy metals. Three other companies refused to fully cooperate with the investigation, raising questions about heavy metals in their products.
What may be even more shocking, though, is that there are virtually no federal standards for toxic heavy metals in baby food.
Alarming levels of heavy metals found in baby food
Photo: Exposure to heavy metals arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury pose heightened health risks for babies, even at low levels. Credit: yalehealth via Pixabay
Arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury are bad for human health and are especially harmful to babies. Exposure to even low levels of toxic heavy metals can harm babies’ brain development, making it important to keep them below safe levels in their food.
Because these metals appear naturally in soil — and in some fields more than others due to industrial pollution and pesticide residue — it’s difficult to keep them out of our produce entirely.
But ingredients in some of the foods reviewed by the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on economic and consumer policy showed test results that far exceeded federal limits set for heavy metals in bottled water — with some results up to 91 times the arsenic level, 177 times the lead level, 69 times the cadmium level, and 5 times the mercury level. Significant levels of heavy metals were found in both organic and non-organic baby food.
The companies responsible should never have sold these products in the first place. But the fact that their foods were able to make it onto store shelves at all is in large part because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to set limits on heavy metals for most baby food.
Where are the federal standards?
At the time of the congressional report’s release, the FDA had so far only finalized a 100 part per billion (ppb) limit on arsenic in infant rice cereals, taking a one-by-one approach the report argues is “logically unsound” — because there can only be one safe arsenic level that all baby food should adhere to.
Meanwhile, the agency has yet to establish any limits on lead, mercury or cadmium in baby food — despite acknowledging the heightened risks mercury and lead pose to children and in contrast to the European Union’s 15 ppb cadmium limit for infant formula.
The FDA must do more
Following the report’s release, the FDA announced on March 5 that it’s creating a plan to lower the amount of heavy metals in baby food. To ensure that infants’ food is as safe as possible, PIRG is calling for a plan that:
- Sets strict, across-the-board limits on toxic heavy metals in baby food.
- Requires more transparency from baby food makers and more inspections.
- Requires baby food companies to disclose levels of heavy metals on food labeling.
In a move applauded by PIRG, federal lawmakers introduced the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021 on March 26. If passed, the law would give baby food manufacturers one year to comply with rigorous limits on arsenic (10 ppb, 15 ppb for cereal), lead (5 ppb, 10 ppb for cereal), cadmium (5 ppb, 10 ppb for cereal) and mercury (2 ppb).
The law would also require the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services to then lower those maximums even further within two years, would compel baby food companies to test their final products for heavy metals — instead of just individual ingredients — and would set aside $50 million for research into methods for reducing heavy metals in crops.
What can parents do?
The No. 1 thing that will make baby food safer is strong federal limits for heavy metals. In the meantime, though, nutritionists and food safety experts at Consumer Reports have put together a list of things parents can do to limit their child’s exposure:
- Reduce the amount of high-risk baby foods in your child’s diet, including rice, sweet potatoes, apple juice and grape juice.
- Reduce your baby’s consumption of fruit juices, which were also found to have high levels of heavy metals.
- Make your own baby food. Preparing food yourself prevents exposure from any heavy metals that may be present in additives. As many baby foods are enriched, parents who make their own food will want to check with their child’s pediatrician to make sure their child is getting enough vitamins and minerals. Parents should not make their own infant formula; homemade formula has resulted in nutrient deficiencies and foodborne illness in babies.
- Pare down on baby food snacks, such as puffs, teething biscuits and crackers.
- Go for variety in your baby’s diet. Feeding your child a diversity of foods can help prevent overconsumption of heavy metals. Getting enough nutrients, such as vitamin C and zinc, will help bolster your baby’s body against the impacts of heavy metals.
You can take action
Our children should have food that’s safe to eat — but we can’t count on companies to stick to health-based standards themselves. We need laws that protect our youngest from heavy metals with rigorous, enforceable limits.
Send a message to your U.S. representative today urging them to pass the Baby Food Safety Act of 2021.